Twenty-five years after she directed a broadside at the global economic order for ignoring the unpaid work women do, Marilyn Waring said she’s still waiting.
Her 1988 book “If Women Counted” persuaded the United Nations to redefine gross domestic product, inspired new accounting methods in dozens of countries and became the founding document of the discipline of feminist economics. For all that, Waring points to a status quo: Men dominate most institutions that rule the economy.
A former member of the New Zealand parliament and the country’s central bank board, Waring said women who do rise to leadership in business, finance and politics often find themselves having to play by rules that don’t suit them, and that don’t necessarily lead to good decisions for the planet.
“You really need to be a testosterone junkie in lots of these positions,” she said. “And if you don’t want to be a testosterone junkie, then you’re left out of the game.”
Much of the world’s economic activity takes place in the form of unpaid work by women, from fetching water, carrying firewood and tending animals in subsistence agricultural countries, to caring for children, the sick and elderly in both developing and developed nations. The revolution her book began isn’t over, she said, with a large portion of this activity still left out of GDP calculations and policy decisions.
“When you don’t have all of that in front of you, you just make really bad policy,” she said. “You make very bad policy about the next generation, about the environment.”
Elected in 1975 when she was 23, Waring became the youngest woman to serve in New Zealand’s parliament, and in her second term was the sole woman in the ruling caucus. She became head of the Public Expenditure Committee, a role that exposed her to the workings of the UN system of national accounts, which governs the way countries report their finances.
She left politics in 1984, after famously helping topple the government of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon by backing a bill to make New Zealand a nuclear-free zone.
Four years later, Waring gained international prominence with “If Women Counted,” also published as “Counting for Nothing.” Praised by the feminist Gloria Steinem and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the book lambasted national accounting systems as sexist for excluding unpaid women’s work. Canada’s National Film Board in 1995 made it into a documentary called “Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics.”
While Waring wasn’t the first to criticize the exclusion, her book drew attention for its thorough and persuasive analysis, said Joann Vanek, a former director of social statistics at the UN.
“She demystified the national accounts,” Vanek said. “Many feminists had taken pot shots at national accounts, but Marilyn went into the body of it and disaggregated the specific assumptions that were made and how that really shaped what ended up being a bias against women.”
Waring’s knowledge and outspokenness made the critique credible, Vanek said. “She was unafraid. These guys, these national accountants, are somewhat oracle-type figures, and she would confront them.”
In 1993, the UN revised the system of national accounts to recommend that all production of goods in households for their own consumption be included in the measurement of economic output, a definition excluding childcare, elder-care, cooking and cleaning.
Alternatives to GDP as a measure of progress proliferated after Waring advocated methods such as time-use surveys, in which people are asked to detail how they spend their time on both paid and unpaid work.
The UN in 1990 began publishing its Human Development Report, which includes the Human Development Index, ranking countries according to a composite of life expectancy, education and income indexes. The index was developed by economists Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen of India to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to human well-being.
“If Women Counted” also helped give rise to feminist economics as an academic discipline, said Margunn Bjoernholt, director of Policy and Social Research AS, an Oslo-based institute that focuses on gender, work, welfare and economics.
“The field of feminist economics did not exist when she wrote the book,” said Bjoernholt, who is co-editing a collection of writings by scholars that will examine the impact of Waring’s work over the past 25 years.
Called “Counting on Marilyn Waring,” the collection is scheduled for publication in September and will include examples of how Waring’s ideas have been translated.
In Scotland, they helped inspire the creation in 2009 of a so-called budget equality statement, according to Ailsa McKay, a professor of economics at Glasgow Caledonian University and Bjoernholt’s co-editor. The statement is published alongside the annual budget to highlight how spending decisions are taking gender into account.
“It’s embedded now in the Scottish budget process,” McKay said. “She’s made a huge difference in the world.”
Waring acknowledges there’s been widespread change since 1988. From Canada to South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, people who care for sick or elderly family members at home have gained increased access to financial assistance or expanded elder-care from the government, she said. Increased data gathering, including time-use surveys, has made more statistics available that can be employed to guide better decision-making.
Still, economic policy remains driven to a great extent by GDP figures, which continue to leave out most forms of unpaid work. The 1993 revision of the system of national accounts to include more uncompensated labor hasn’t been widely implemented at the national level, and especially not in poor countries with large subsistence economies, Waring said.
“There’s never the technical or logistical capacity to actually collect the data,” she said. “So it’s a fairly cynical move.”
Most of the global economy’s political and corporate institutions are run by men. In politics, men hold about 80 percent of key elected and appointed positions, according to the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report. Women made up 10.5 percent of corporate board members globally as of 2011, up from 9.3 percent in 2009, a survey last year by New York-based GMI Ratings found. Almost 40 percent of companies had no female directors, the survey showed.
Waring said the data show why more female leaders are needed, and also why many women shy away from top jobs.
“The isolation and the loneliness really are pretty profound,” she said. “There’s still enormous compulsion to be ‘one of the boys.’”
Many women “take a look at what goes on and just think, well, no, I’ve got better things to do in life,” she said.
As one of a handful of women in parliament, Waring said she earned the scorn of male colleagues and received hate mail for her position on women’s issues, including her advocacy of banning marital rape, which then wasn’t a crime in New Zealand.
“I was told by my male colleagues that ‘real women’ didn’t think like me,” said Waring, who’s writing a memoir about her days in politics. “There was a lot of stuff -- I mean, particularly abusive material -- that would come from the public by way of letters.”
Eventually, rising numbers of female leaders may help transform institutions, Waring said, applauding quotas requiring more women in government cabinets or on corporate boards that have been adopted in some countries. France, Ireland and Mexico are among those with required proportions for women in certain elected offices, for example, while France, Spain and Italy have quotas for women on boards of large corporations, and Norway has for female directors of public and state-owned enterprises.
“I’m still somebody who actually believes in the capacity of the community to work toward what is needed,” she said, “and I still think that every day and in every way there are significant numbers of people on the planet who are trying to make it better.”
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